Monday, December 12, 2005

Back to the bad old times?

I've been playing around with Blood Sword, a book that let's you play a classic dungeon crawl alone. Mostly it's stuff like: "If you enter the corridor ahead, go to 314. If you investigate the alcove to the right, go to 24." Sometimes, you have actual fights, complete with maps, dice and hit points. The book was written in 1987 and can be downloaded from the Home of the Underdogs. Read the review there:

Definitely one of the best gamebook series ever released

Of course, this is merely one reviewer's opinion, but if Blood Sword even comes near to what was thought acceptable by the readers of these books, things were seriously amiss. But what makes me shudder with horror is the idea that if people accepted to be treated like this by a game book, they would also accept to be treated like this by a real GameMaster. Perhaps this book even corresponds to the play style of a substantial section of the roleplayers in 1987? That would really explain where something like the Abused Player Syndrome that Chris talks about comes from.

So, what is so horrific about this book? Well, first of all, it is almost never the case that you actually have any information on which you can base your choices. "Do you go left or right?" How should I know? There is nothing I can do to find out which is the good choice. But if you choose the wrong option, you're bound to meet a dreadful end.

Here are some choice events:

  • You meet an assassin with a poisoned dagger. If he wounds you (quite a chance), you die immediately.
  • You read a scroll and are transported to a magical place from which you cannot flee, where you have to face an opponent who is much stronger than you are. You can only escape by killing him.
  • You find a black potion. If you ever decide to drink it, you die.
I mean, come on! You give me a potion, you don't allow me to find out what it does, and when I try to drink it you instantly kill my character - and this is supposed to be fun? Well, I don't take abuse from a book, so I can cheat and there's nothing the book can do about it. But think about actual roleplaying games where the GameMaster, having read too many of these books or having been brought up in a dysfunctional gamer culture, actually constructs his dungeons this way. How many players would not dare to break the social contract by standing up and saying: "you utterly suck, I'm not going to take this kind of abuse"? Many.

Was roleplaying really ever like this? I really hope it wasn't, and that Blood Sword is merely an abberation.


  1. Haven't seen many of those books, eh?

    Your example is typical (of those books)

  2. lots of gamers had that experience. the standard random dungeon experience. led to a great dislike of poison (and neutralize poison potions being important) and analysis before they drank things.

  3. Tobias: nope, I only saw two or three Choose Your Own Adventure books many years ago, and those didn't involve RPG elements. I seem to recall that they involved 'random' failure, though. How did these things ever sell? Make something like this in the current interactive fiction scene and you'll be chased out of town covered in tar and feathers.

    Stephen: why do you think people put up with it? Was it simply perceived as "the way these game ought to be played", without much critical reflection?

  4. It was, in my experience, just seen as "how the game was played."

    Of course, there are a few mitigating things (not socially, but game wise). In the books you can just go back to the last spot before the killer decision. Much like a save point in an computer RPG. In many fantasy RPGs you just got resurected. It doesn't matter so much if you die if it's just a quick trip the magic man and then you're back on your feet.

    The real problems started happening when we crossed the streams of "realistic" or "gritty" and old school standard game play. Because then you suddenly can't get resurected or go back to the save point -- and so must sit there and suck. Or when we mixed the streams of "telling a story" or "having a protagonist" with old school standard game play, because then all your hard work turns to shit when the GM decides to be clever.

  5. What Brand said, also:

    I dunno about the rest of the world, but I always read these books with my fingers stuck between many different pages, keeping my place at many different points of 'alternate history' of my adventures. To me, the sense of possibility expressed by this sort of parallel branching forks was what fascinated me.

  6. I remember the first time I read through the red-box Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set Player's Handbook. I got to the "solo adventure" biit and remember being disappointed; all this "role-playing game" business was just another Choose Your Own Adventure or Fighting Fantasy.

    A couple of sessions later I knew differently. But still, first impressions and all that...

  7. Bradley: really? Was resurrection that easy? I have an old D&D book lying around somewhere (from the time that elfs were still a class and the DM rolled a die to see whether a room contained a monster or a trap), but I can't remember seeing anything about resurrection in those rules.

    But yes, I can see where the problems came from. :) Do you think these problems were pretty common by the late eighties?

    Joshua: however, these "choose this and you'll die a random death"-choices don't really make for branching forks. Also, keeping your fingers between the pages is hard with a PDF - but that's just a problem for us latter days adventurers. ;)

  8. I remember Judge's Guild's entry into the CYOA field. One room was filled with giant rats. The text said that if you were a druid, you died because you wouldn't dare injure animals to save your own life...

    What bullpucky.

    I never really got into the Tunnels and Trolls solo adventures - anyone know if these were any different? I remember reading through one (without the rules so I faked it). It was a little bit amusing.

    I've read through the ones written for Tekumel a while back. They were explicitly written to be a lifepath system for starting PCs. They had a few deathtraps, but very few. Mostly you at least got to fight to survive. Of course written the way they were, they really weren't all that different than Traveller character generation, and definitely produced more interesting results (you learned something about the world, perhaps gained a contact or two, and possibly a cool item or two).

    Resurrection was pretty common in the games I ran and played in in the late 70s. By college I was starting to drift away from that style, and Cold Iron solidly got me away from that style. Well, it doesn't entirely, but there is a limit to how badly nuked your PC can be and be recovered, and the rest of the PCs have to hold the field and get to you quickly to save you.

    Some GMs did run pretty nasty dungeons, but play had mostly drifted away from there by the time I started playing. Tournament dungeons were often pretty deadly though, as I gather from the tournament modules I have read and ran.

    I feel that some of the deadliness and random trap crap came from Gygax. I've read some of his essays on GMing, and he sounds like a pretty disfunctional GM. He is also the originator of the "you're playing it wrong" attitude in my book and he used to rail on about the Amateur Press Association rags (the 70s equivalent of the blog).

    CYOAs sold because for lots of people, it was their only chance of getting involved in RPGs (not that CYOAs are at all an RPG).

    You mentioned interractive fiction, which I'm assuming you mean games like Zork and such? In the 70s and 80s they had some pretty arbitrary things themselves.


  9. Frank, thanks for the info.

    Yes, with Interactive Fiction I do mean things like Zork. It is definitely the case that the old Infocom IF was full of random deaths and things like that (which is why I have never really played one of their games). But in contemporary IF (still a rather active scene of non-commercial writers) that is very much not done and will turn away large parts of your potential audience.

    However, this attitude has only become predominant sometime after, say, 1995.

  10. I started my gaming career with the Fighting Fantasy books, which were a bit better - at least, those written by Steve Jackson (U.K.); Ian Livingstones books weren't all that good. More flavour, more interesting choices. Still, the books actually told you to keep track of what paragraphs you'd visited, in case you wanted to go back and try another route. When I played with my best friend, we'd allow ourselves three "cheats"; after we'd really died 3 times, we'd have to start again.

    I wouldn't say that was how we played when we started playing D&D, though. It was fairly hard to actually get killed in the first few games I was in. And the "whammy" sudden-unpredictable-death wasn't very common, as I recall it.

  11. Hi Victor,

    Yes, this was common play for some groups. There are many modules and supplements which subscribed to this category of play. Especially try looking up "Grimtooth's Traps" books. Many early D&D adventures had situations like this and informed a whole generation of play.

    When I talk about "Whammy" play, that's the kind of stuff I'm talking about- not just instant death, but also stuff like, "Now the armor you're wearing is cursed, and you can't take it off! Hahahahaha!"

    What usually would happen with these groups is that the group would develop a hierarchy, with the people the GM liked the most receiving the least amount of abuse, and the ones the GM liked the least getting the most. New players were seen as fresh meat, and the group would take pleasure in seeing the new guy "pay his dues".

    Oftentimes the GM would hide behind "My-Guy-ism" of the fictional world and how unfair and irrational it was. The players would turn their frustrations and feelings of inadequacy upon themselves and each other.

    Though this dropped out of game texts in the 90's, you can still find elements of it, especially since most games give no context for functioning social contract or preventing GM abuse.

  12. Guys- Whilst everything you say here is very interesting and intelligent, you're missing a central point- Gamebooks cost the equivilant of $10-12 and had 400-500 "slots". They were therefore truly minute compared to even ZX era IF or any human role playing.

    Unless they were brutally unfair you would beat them in about an hour.

    Therefore the "game" was in fact a sort of hermeneutic (i.e. trial and error) exercise in which you would see how many attempts it took you to find a way through.

    In fact the Blood Sword books were among the most interesting and rich examples of the genre, and a classic of their time.

    And yes. The Game Book medium is an anachronism these days. But at the time, as a seven year old kid, I loved them. So be nice, please!